The Flemish workability monitor: a broad focus on quality of work

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In 2001, the tripartite social partners agreed on 21 long-term objectives for the Flemish region in Belgium. One of them was to substantially increase the workability of the jobs in the region. Workability is in this policy seen as a complement to employability and related to quality of work. As part of this policy decision a survey instrument was developed. This report reviews the main results of the first Flemish Workability Monitor. The Monitor concluded that the workability rate in Flanders was 52.3% in 2004. This means that 47.7% of the Flemish employees were confronted with one or more workability problems. In the report, research details of the Flemish Workability Monitor on these problems are summarised.


Policy background

Survey design

Research results



Further information



Policy background

Recent Belgian policy attention on quality of work is inspired especially by the awareness that poor job quality forms a significant obstacle to the goals of the active welfare state, embraced by the policy makers since the end of the 90s. Active employment measures with the goal of increasing labour market participation in the country can only succeed when people are provided with good quality of jobs. As such this policy focus makes references to the Lisbon agenda that speaks of ‘more’ but also ‘better’ jobs. It was under the Belgian presidency at the Laeken summit (2001) that the European Union took the concrete decision to include quality of work as a general objective in the European employment guidelines.

Belgium is a federal country. Important fields of policy are totally or partly governed at the regional or community level. Employment policy is one of these fields. In 2001 and with the Lisbon Agenda as inspiration, the Flemish government and the social partners concluded the Pact of Vilvoorde. This document contained a long-term socio-economic vision of the region. Like the Lisbon Agenda, 2010 was the reference date for the agreed targets. It was probably no coincidence the pact was signed in Vilvoorde, the place which three years before saw the abrupt closure of the Renault automobile plant.The Flemish government and the social partners agreed in the Pact of Vilvoorde to promote quality of work. Objective 4 of the Pact states: “Obtaining and retaining work will remain attractive for all in 2010 thanks to an increase in the quality of work, the quality of the work organisation and career quality. In 2010 the workability rate will be substantially higher.” To see progress is made in 2010, one has to measure the workability in the region.

The Flanders Social and Economic Council (Sociale en Economische Raad van Vlaanderen, SERV) committed itself to monitor the workability rate (as the other objectives of the Pact). A preparatory expert report (Van Ruysseveldt, De Witte & Huys, 2001) concluded that in order to monitor this workability rate a new quantitative benchmark instrument was needed. Thus, a new survey on the quality of work was born in Flanders.


Survey design

The Flanders Social and Economic Council commissioned STV Innovation and Work (STV Innovatie en Arbeid, STV) to develop a scientifically validated indicator set on workability and to organise a base measurement of these indicators. A first survey was conducted in 2004. Follow-up surveys are planned in 2007 and 2010. With these 3 consecutive surveys, the progress in the workability rate of the region and its possible explanations will be monitored in order to evaluate the agreed objective of the Vilvoorde Pact. The survey runs within the framework of the VIONA research programme and with the support of the European Social Fund. First, the conceptual framework of the survey will be explained. How has the ‘workability’ concept – a substitute for good quality of work – been defined and measured? A second point will go into the details of the survey method (sample, response rate, etc.).

Conceptual framework

Workability (the translation of the Flemish policy term used (in Dutch) ‘werkbaar werk’) is defined in the survey as a multidimensional concept. The workability rate, which the policy makers want to improve considerably before 2010, is defined as the share of Flemish employees with a non-problematic situation in each of the four following work-related dimensions: stress-at-work, well-being at work, learning opportunities and the work-family balance (see table 1).

Table 1: Workability indicators in the Flemish Workability Monitor
Description of key indicators in the Flemish Workability Monitor
Indicator Description
Stress at work The extent to which accumulated (mental) fatigue to psychosocial workload can be recuperated or leads to complaints of stress on the part of employees and to reduced job performance
Well-being at work The extent to which employees are/remain committed or become demotivated due to the nature of the job (content)
Learning opportunities The extent to which employees are able to maintain or further develop their skills through opportunities for training and daily experience at the workplace, with a view to their longer-term employability
Work-family balance The extent to which the job demands at work interfere with the person’s home life

Source: Bourdeaud’hui R., Janssens F. & Vanderhaeghe S. (2004)

From a policy point of view, assessing ‘workability’ is only useful when insights are also gained on the causes of the detected problems. In addition to the four workability indicators, six risk factors were in this regard selected for the monitor.

Table 2: Risk indicators in the Flemish Workability Monitor
Description of risk indicators in the Flemish Workability Monitor
Indicator Description
Workload The level of workload arising from quantitative job demands such as work volume, pace of work and deadlines
Emotional load The level of the workload due to contact-related job demands, especially contacts with clients or co-ordination tasks
Skill task variety The extent to which the job content includes a variety of job responsibillities and makes use of the employees’ skills
Job autonomy The extent to which employees are able to influence the planning and organisation of their own job tasks
Social support The extent to which employees are effectively coached and socially supported by their direct supervisor
Physical working conditions The extent to which employees are exposed to physical inconveniences in the working environment and to physical load

Source: Bourdeaud’hui R., Janssens F. & Vanderhaeghe S. (2004)

The workability monitor also registers a number of job quality effects: job satisfaction, health problems, frequency and duration of absenteeism, intention to leave one’s job, the feasibility of working until retirement age.

Figure 1: Key concepts of the Flemish Workability Monitor


Source: Bourdeaud’hui R., Janssens F. & Vanderhaeghe S. (2004)

Methodological design

Workability indicators are measured by the use of psychometric scales. In constructing the survey questionnaire a selection of modules from existing, validated instruments was made. It is highly complementary to the Dutch ARBO monitor ‘workload and stress’. The VBBA (Vragenlijst Beleving en Beoordeling van de Arbeid) formed the major parts of the survey. This Dutch questionnaire was developed in the mid-nineties and is conceptually based on internationally common theoretical models of stress and well-being at work (for example the job demands-control-support model of Karasek and Theorell). A new scale was developed for the ‘working conditions’ risk factor based on a selection of items contained in the ESWC of 2000.

The data for the Workability Monitor were compiled from an individual random sample survey taken from a representative group of Flemish employees. The sample population was defined as ‘the wage-earners residing in the Region of Flanders’. To obtain sufficient precision in the measurement and in order to reach conclusions on a number of relevant sub-groups (by age, occupation and sector), the requested size of the sample survey was calculated to be 8,000 respondents. Taking into consideration a response ratio of 40%, the written questionnaire was sent to 20,000 persons in the spring of 2004.

To encourage response, the following measures were taken: a media campaign in magazine advertisements, a telephone helpdesk to assist respondents, pre-testing of the survey (150 people), assuring complete anonymity, graphic design of the questionnaire limited to 13 pages, sending of two reminders. (Usable) data from 12,095 respondents were obtained, which amounts to a net response of 60.6%. Several sample reliability tests showed no evidence of systematic bias in the obtained responses. A steering group of experts concluded that the results of this first base measurement of the monitor provide an accurate and representative overview of the workability situation of employees in the Flemish labour market.

Based on the risk effect results, cut-off points for the workability indicators were defined. Based on content-related arguments and with the help of statistical techniques, responses on the obtained measurement scales were classified as unproblematic, problematic or acute problematic (namely having as a result of the score on this scale a strong or definite chance to being confronted with health or well-being problems).

Research results

In general

Workability problems

The percentage of employees in a problematic situation was calculated for each of the workability indicators (first bar in the graph). Within this group a specific group with acute problems was in each case also defined and detected (second bar in the graph).

Figure 2: The 4 workability indicators, Flemish labour market, 2004


Source: Flemish Workability Monitor 2004

Note: The figures for the two groups may not be added up. For example 10.2% reports an acutely problematic situation of stress at work. It means that almost one in three of the persons of a problematic situation (28.9%), are confronted with an acute situation. It does NOT mean that besides 28.9% of the people in a problematic situation, there are also 10% in an acute situation.

The following conclusions were made based on these figures:

  • A sizeable majority of the Flemish employees have no problems: for nine out of ten the work-family life is in balance; for four out of five employees the well-being and learning opportunities at work are non-problematic; and for seven out of ten employees the stress levels at work are acceptable.
  • Stress at work is defined as the most acute ‘workability’ attribute in the Flemish labour market. Transposing the research results to the whole Flemish wage-earners population, it means that around 600,000 employees (29.8%) are confronted with job stress and 210,000 (10.2%) are facing an acutely stressful situation at work.

Workability rate

Figure 3: Composite workability indicator, Flemish labour market, 2004


Source: Flemish Workability Monitor 2004

Combining the results of the four workability indicators leads to the research conclusion that 24.4% of the Flemish wage-earners population reports one problem; 15.0% two; 8.3% three or four. Based on this calculation and within the defined policy framework the research concludes that the workability rate in the Flemish labour market is 53% for the base year 2004. This part of the Flemish employee population reports no workability problems. They are not confronted with a problematic situation at work in relation to stress, well-being, learning and combining it with family life. As already stated, the policy makers want to improve this rate considerably by the year 2010.

Workability risk factors

Figure 4: Workability risk indicators, Flemish labour market, 2004


Source: Flemish Workability Monitor 2004

Regarding the measured risk factors, workload is clearly the biggest problem. Almost one-third of the employees are faced with a high workload, more than 1 out of 10 with an extremely high workload. Also striking is the large percentage (20.5%) of people experiencing emotional stress in their job.

Workability risk effects

Table 3: Effects of workability problems, risk ratio, Flemish labour market, 2004
Difference in risk effects by workability situation
Indicator Effect Risk ratio between problematic and unproblematic
Stress at work Serious sleep disorders 5.57
  Long-term absenteeism 1.69
  Unfeasibility of working until retirement age 2.05
Well-being at work Intention to quit 8.38
  Frequent absenteeism 2.51
Learning opportunities Job insecurity 2.79
  Unfeasibility of working until retirement age 2.07
Work-family balance Intention to quit 3.09
  Frequent absenteeism 1.92

How to read? (see first line) A person with a problematic stress at work situation is 5.57 times more likely to have serious sleeping disorders according to the results of the Flemish Workability Monitor.

Source: Bourdeaud’hui R., Janssens F. & Vanderhaeghe S. (2004)

The study furthermore shows that strong links exist between the defined workability indicators and specific health and employability risks. People with a problematic stress situation at work have a 5.6 times higher probability of sleeping disorders. The intention to quit of people with a problematic well-being at work is more than 8 times higher.

Specific results

In the following points some specific results of the Flemish workability monitor have been summarised. They were for the most part topics in the STV monthly electronic newsflash, published since October 2004.

Unskilled blue-collar workers highest workability deficit

Figure 5: Workability rate by occupational status, Flanders, 2004


Source: Flemish Workability Monitor 2004

The workability rate is only 33.3% in the group of unskilled blue-collar workers, compared to 55 to 60% in the groups of professional and managerial staff. Job motivation poses a huge problem in this group of unskilled blue-collars. They have few learning opportunities; are required to perform a lot of routine (manual) work with a low degree of autonomy.

Workability highest in non-private sectors

Table 4: Workability indicators by sector, Flanders, 2004
% of employees with problematic score
  Stress Motivational problems Insufficient learning opportunities Problems work-family life balance
Food industry 25.9 25.7 30.4 12.9
Textile & clothing 27.5 25.3 41.9 9.6
Chemical sector 29.1 21.7 20.5 11.0
Metal industry 25.6 24.2 27.5 9.2
Construction 31.4 20.6 20.5 12.5
Trade 29.4 21.4 30.8 12.8
Hotel & restaurants 29.2 21.0 32.9 17.7
Transport 29.7 21.0 29.4 17.1
Financial sector 34.1 21.0 14.9 13.9
Business services 31.4 24.5 25.6 13.1
Post-Telecommunications 34.4 21.3 30.2 11.1
Civil service 22.4 15.8 20.8 7.8
Education 32.4 10.6 8.4 14.9
Health & social work 30.9 12.8 18.0 10.8

Source: Flemish Workability Monitor 2004

The public administration, health, social work and education sectors have the highest degree of quality jobs according to the Flemish Workability Monitor. Workability runs higher in social profit sectors like education and health compared to industry or services due to less job motivation problems. There is no difference in the degree of stress at work between these social profit and commercial sectors. A job in the public service very often seems to be less stressful in Flanders. Only 22% of these civil servants complain about job stress compared to the Flemish average of 29%.

Workability of part time jobs

Table 5: Workability indicators by sex and working time schedule
% of employees with problematic situation, Flanders, 2004
  Stress Motivation problems Insufficient learning opportunities Problems work-family life balance
Woman, full-time 32.4 16.8 20.5 14.3
Woman, part-time 27.3 16.7 27.6 9.1
Man, full-time 27.2 19.7 20.8 11.5
Man, part-time 29.7 31.7 32.7 8.7

Source: Flemish Workability Monitor 2004

Female part-time workers have a lower degree of stress-at-work and fewer difficulties to combine work and family life than their full-time counterparts. However, they experience fewer learning opportunities at work. Male part-timers are confronted with higher workability problems. This conclusion is probably connected to the fact that part-time work is more frequently an option for men when confronted with problems at work.

Workload greatest stress factor

As already stated, the Workability Monitor concluded that one out of three Flemish employees is confronted with stress at work. Detail analyses showed that the most important factor causing this stress was high work pressure or workload (high tempo, the work volume and deadlines). Professional and managerial staff is especially confronted with a more stressful job situation.

Gender bias in learning opportunities

Figure 6:Problematic learning opportunities by sex and occupational status, Flanders, 2004


Source: Flemish Workability Monitor 2004

Learning opportunities at work differ by gender, especially in lower-status jobs. Male and female managers have almost the same degree of learning opportunities. However, in jobs with fewer learning opportunities, the difference between men and women also grows. 47% of the male unskilled blue-collars report in the Flemish Workability Monitor to have insufficient learning opportunities. For the women of this occupational group, the percentage is 60%. Fewer learning opportunities are related to performing more routine work and having a lower degree of autonomy at work (both typical for unskilled blue-collar jobs).

Work organisation and job commitment

Figure 7: Motivated employees by occupational group and work organisation


Source: Flemisch Workability Monitor 2004

Job motivation differs by occupation, but it is the organisation of work which especially determines this attribute of workability according to the Flemish Workability Monitor. Job task variation and efficient hierarchical or managerial support enhance motivation at work considerably.

Importance of planning a-typical working hours

Figure 8: Stess-at-work and irregular working time schedules, workers with a-typical working hours


Source: Flemish Workability Monitor 2004

Employees having a-typical working hours (night or shift work) complain more about stress at work when their working time schedule is less predictable. Doing overtime leads these workers even more into stress problems, especially when there is no possibility to compensate the overtime with time off.

Combining work-family life

Figure 9: Difficult work-family life balance by sex and working time arrangement


Source: Flemish Workability Monitor

Combining work and family life is not the major workability problem in Flanders. Only 11.8% of the Flemish workers are confronted with this type of workability problem. Work life balance problems affect men and women almost equally. 12% of women and 11% of men have difficulties combining job demands with family life. However, a detailed look into the results of the Flemish Workability Monitor shows that when the figures are corrected for full-time or part-time work, there is still a clear difference by gender. Women are still more burdened with household tasks, which make the combination with paid work more difficult.

Other factors that influence the balance of work and family life are high work load and systematically doing overtime work. Night work and irregular working time schedules are two other important factors disturbing the balance of combining work and family life.


From a scientific point of view

The strength of the survey is its ‘broadness’. The following aspects of the survey contribute to this ‘broad’ perspective:

  • The survey results are based on a large sample, which makes detail comparisons between sectors and occupations possible;
  • The survey uses a conceptually broad definition of job quality;
  • It has a clear policy focus and is not only a scientific project.

Weaknesses of the survey are the following:

  • Although it is a longitudinal survey, it is not a panel survey;
  • From a comparative perspective, the survey is only limited to the Flanders region (although for certain indicators comparisons can be made with a national database and Dutch results);
  • There is no matching of the data possible with workplace or company characteristics.

Within a policy perspective

It will be interesting to see how the policy makers will deal with the results of the second survey in 2007. The first survey of 2004 counted as a base measurement for the policy goal, set by the Flemish social partners, to considerably enhance the workability rate in the region by 2010. The first survey clearly indicated to the policy makers that:

  • Starting from a broad job quality concept, almost half of the Flemish employees have one or more workability problems.
  • Traditional ‘groups-at-risk’ on the labour market, which are targeted in ‘employability’ policies (low-skilled persons, blue-collar workers, women …) are also the groups with a higher risk of ‘workability’ deficiencies.


Bourdeaud’hui R., Janssens F. & Vanderhaeghe S. (2004), Nulmeting Vlaamse werkbaarheidsmonitor : indicatoren voor de kwaliteit van de arbeid op de Vlaamse arbeidsmarkt 2004, (Base measurement Flemish Workability Monitor: indicators for the quality of work in the Flemish labour market), Brussels: SERV – STV Innovatie & Arbeid.

Bourdeaud’hui R. & Vanderhaeghe S. (2005), Wat maakt werk werkbaar? Onderzoek naar determinanten van werkbaar werk op basis van de nulmeting Vlaamse werkbaarheidsmonitor 2004, (What makes work workable? Research into the determinants of workable work based on the base measurement of the Flemish Workability Monitor), Brussels: SERV – STV Innovatie & Arbeid.

Van Ruysseveldt J., De Witte H. & Janssens F (2002), Welzijn in het werk op de weegschaal. Onderzoek naar mogelijke invullingen van het concept ‘werkbaarheidsgraad’ en de haalbaarheid van een monitoringsysteem voor Vlaanderen, (Well-being at work in balance. Research on the possible dimensions of the concept ‘workability rate’ and the feasibility of a monitoring system for Flanders), Leuven: HIVA.

Further information

The only publication in English (at the moment) on the survey:

Bourdeaud’hui R., Janssens F. & Vanderhaeghe S. (2005), Workable jobs in Flanders: the Flemish workability monitor provides a picture of quality of work in Flanders, in: M. Jans & P. van der Hallen, eds., Labour market research and policy making in Flanders, Antwerpen: Garant, p. 147-172.

Further information on the survey (in Dutch) can be obtained from the following website:

You can subscribe to an electronic newsletter which regularly presents detail results of the survey.

Follow-up surveys are scheduled in 2007 and 2010. The data can be obtained for academic research purposes.

Contact persons:




Wetstraat 34-361040 Brussel

tel: 32 (0)2 20 90 111

fax: 32 (0)2 21 77 008


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